MOSCOW - President Vladimir V. Putin has won friends abroad and reassured doubters at home with soothing talk about freedom and human rights, and recently called press criticism "natural" in a democratic society.
But last night, Putin's allies won a significant victory in their efforts to silence the last major independent TV station, the home of television journalists who in the past have questioned Putin's policies and exposed corruption in the highest levels of business and government.
A three-judge arbitration panel ruled in favor of a minority stockholder that has sought to force the TV-6 network to disband. Lawyers for TV-6 vowed to appeal, but the Press Ministry now has authority to cancel the station's license.
The suit against the network was filed by Lukoil-Garant, a pension fund of one of Russia's oil giants that is owned by allies of the Kremlin. Alexander Koshemyakin, a Lukoil representative who attended the hearing last night, said the organization would try to force the broadcaster to sell its assets as quickly as possible. "We're going to fulfill the law," he said, nudging his way past reporters.
Later, cornered in the lobby of the courthouse by a phalanx of television cameras, Koshemyakin asserted that the fund had no intention of trying to muzzle the media. "There is no political undercurrent in this suit," he said.
But few seem to think the suit was motivated by commercial concerns. "This is plainly a political decision," said Aleksei Pankin, editor of the media magazine Sreda. "I know people who have looked into this affair from a legal point of view, and they find no precedent for it."
The suit ostensibly centered on the pension fund's $4,000 investment in TV-6, which started on a shoestring in 1991. Russian oligarch Boris Berezovsky bought a controlling stake in the network in the mid-1990s. Then came Russia's economic collapse in 1998, and TV-6, like most companies here, began losing money.
No one seemed to care until this spring, when friends of the Russian president seized control of a much larger station, NTV.
NTV was a razor-sharp thorn in the Kremlin's side that regularly skewered Putin and his advisers in a satirical puppet show, exposed crooked deals by government officials and aired exposes of the war in Chechnya.
After a court battle and despite protests by NTV journalists, the network was seized by a state-controlled company headed by Putin's deputy chief of staff. Not surprisingly, NTV's treatment of Putin has softened in subsequent months. News stories are occasionally critical of the president, but, regular viewers say, the criticism is muted and indirect.
Rather than work under the new regime, many of NTV's top journalists - including Yevgeny Kiselyov, host of a provocative 90-minute Sunday program called Summing Up - defected to Berezovsky's TV-6.
Berezovsky, one of the oligarchs to emerge from the privatization schemes of the early 1990s, seemed an unlikely champion of a free and independent media. He was a fierce competitor of Vladimir Gusinsky, a rival oligarch who founded NTV. He had wielded tremendous behind-the-scenes influence, helping organize the secret financing of former President Boris N. Yeltsin's 1996 election campaign. Three years later, he helped pick Putin as Yeltsin's heir.
Once in office, Putin tried to curb the power of the oligarchs. Berezovsky responded by becoming increasingly critical of Putin and left the country. A recent crack by Berezovsky that Putin would not last his first term in office was "interpreted in the Kremlin as an attack, as an actual declaration of war," said Pankin, editor of Sreda.
Soon after Kiselyov and his colleagues jumped to TV-6, Lukoil-Garant tried to name its own general manager. Failing that, it filed suit under a Russian law that gives shareholders the right to force a company that has posted two straight years of losses to liquidate. But the law is seldom used. (Russian legislators repealed it this summer, though the repeal doesn't take effect until Jan. 1.)
Meanwhile, Lukoil-Garant lawyers had a hard time yesterday explaining how dismantling the network - which might not generate enough cash to pay its debts - would help the pensioners they represent.
Although the new TV-6 is not as good as the old NTV, everyone agrees, the station has improved. Its revamped news programming, coupled with the popularity of Russia's first reality TV show, Behind the Glass, has earned higher ratings. TV-6 says it began earning profits this year for the first time since the economic crisis.
Too late, ruled Judge Olga Dimianova, sitting at the head of the panel. "It can't change the situation," she said, because the court can consider balance sheets from only the most recent fiscal year, which ended Jan. 1. TV-6 lawyers called her ruling frustrating.
"It's absurd that we're becoming a profitable enterprise and within a month we can prove it, and yet this is not taken into account," Yelena Kutyina, one of the network's lawyers, told the court.
Few believe the network can prevail on appeal, especially in a country where the courts are as vulnerable to political pressure as Russia. "Obviously, the Kremlin does not want to leave such a powerful propaganda tool in Berezovsky's hands," Pankin said.
The only question, he said, is what will happen to TV-6's 1,200 employees. After having two networks shot out from under them, some of the station's stars might have trouble finding jobs. "I think the journalists are kinds of hostages in this struggle between the political authorities and the oligarchs," he said.
"We try not to think about it," said Marna Lilleriali, a journalist who has covered conflicts in the Middle East and Africa, and who was in the small courtroom last night. "We don't believe it is possible to close us."