Russia's NTV looks to unlikely saviors

Ex-president Gorbachev, CNN founder Turner back independent TV network

April 05, 2001|By Will Englund | Will Englund,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - In the crowded offices and hallways of NTV yesterday, caffeine-jagged editors, reporters and producers waited for the inevitable moment when their foes would come and take possession.

It has become something of a Russian trademark: Workers have occupied factories, and scientists have taken over their institutes until chased out by police. Eight years ago, members of parliament took over their own building, to be ousted in the end by tanks.

But in the struggle by the nation's only independent television network against the new management selected by its Kremlin-associated debtholder - a struggle that they cast as one for freedom of the press - none of the sweating, exhausted, excited employees quite expected what would happen yesterday, which was nothing.

Thirty-six hours after the giant gas monopoly Gazprom convened a shareholders' meeting and moved to take control of the network, the NTV crews were still broadcasting their side of the story, still emblazoning their viewers' screens with the red word "PROTEST." Regular programming was canceled to demonstrate the severity of the struggle; the news shows brought words of support from Siberia, Chechnya and St. Petersburg.

The police hadn't come storming in. The power hadn't been turned off. The transmitters hadn't been shut down. The new chairman, Alfred Kokh, and the new general director, an American investment banker named Boris Jordan, hadn't shown up.

And by yesterday afternoon an improbable white knight had appeared on the horizon and the most unlikely of politicians had been thrust from the shadows once more toward center stage.

The white knight is Ted Turner, founder of CNN, who has been talking for several months with NTV founder Vladimir Gusinsky about buying most of Gusinsky's 47 percent share. Turner said yesterday that he had reached an agreement with Gusinsky and hopes to reach one with Gazprom "that would ensure the future of the Russian television networks NTV, TNT and NTV+ as free and independent media companies."

And the politician who has come to NTV's defense, in no uncertain terms, is Mikhail S. Gorbachev, former president of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev, once consigned to oblivion by his fellow countrymen, recently was named head of a public advisory panel for NTV. He angrily declared yesterday that neither he nor any member of that panel would meet with the "self-appointed" managers from Gazprom.

Addressing NTV reporters, he said: "I think you chose the absolutely correct position."

Speaking forcefully, if a bit nervously, on the air, he said he hopes to meet with President Vladimir V. Putin on Monday to press the case for an independent NTV.

So far, Putin has said nothing about the controversy, although Gazprom is controlled by the Kremlin and the staff at NTV believes he is behind what they see as a bald move to bring them to heel.

"Putin has unleashed a war against NTV and now he pretends he has nothing to do with it," Yevgeny Kiselyov, general director and leader of the fight against Gazprom, said during a hastily arranged but packed news conference at the NTV building.

Kiselyov said he thought Kokh and Jordan had been thrown off balance by the solid resistance of the NTV staff and were plotting their next move. He said he expects the Federal Security Service to organize a "provocation" - perhaps an attack on the dozens of demonstrators outside NTV's headquarters - that would be used as a pretext by the authorities for raiding the building.

"But any forceful measures against us will play into our hands," said news program host Andrei Norkin, who had been at work for 30 hours straight and whose exhaustion was hidden only by heavy pancake makeup.

Kiselyov and his lawyers said yesterday that they believe they can show that the Gazprom shareholders meeting Tuesday lacked a quorum, because a minority investor called Capital Research Fund was not properly represented. Jordan disputed that contention.

But NTV leaders made it clear that they are pinning more hopes on Turner than on a possible courtroom victory in Moscow - because the courts have proved to be remarkably pliable in the case.

Jordan said NTV has been losing money and warned Turner against being cheated in a deal.

Thus, the fight over Russia's independent television outlet comes down to a choice between two Americans. Jordan, of Russian descent, has been active here throughout the 1990s in privatization deals. Turner, the cable magnate, has had a longtime interest in Russia that includes his promotion of the Goodwill Games.

Gorbachev, who has known Turner since the 1980s, said yesterday: "He is not the worst option."

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